The Indian outreach is largely led by security officials and limited to Taliban factions and leaders that are perceived as being “nationalist” or outside the sphere of influence of Pakistan and Iran.

India has for the first time opened channels of communication with Afghan Taliban factions and leaders, including Mullah Baradar, against the backdrop of the rapid drawdown of US forces from Afghanistan, people with knowledge of the development have said.

The move marks a significant shift from New Delhi’s position of not engaging with the Afghan Taliban in any way and comes at a time when key world powers are veering around to the position that the Taliban will play some part in any future dispensation in Kabul.

The outreach is largely being led by Indian security officials and has been limited to Taliban factions and leaders that are perceived as being “nationalist” or outside the sphere of influence of Pakistan and Iran, one of the people cited above said on condition of anonymity. The outreach has been underway for some months, though it continues to be exploratory in nature, the people said.

In the case of Mullah Baradar, the co-founder of the Afghan Taliban and one of the group’s main negotiators, the first person cited above said messages were exchanged by the two sides though there was no confirmation of a meeting. There have also been conversations with other Taliban factions despite a lack of trust on both sides, the people said.

The outreach to Baradar is significant as he signed the deal with then US secretary of state Mike Pompeo in February 2020 that paved the way for the current withdrawal of American troops. Baradar held various posts when the Taliban was in power during 1996-2001. He was captured by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) in Karachi in February 2010 after he began negotiations with the Hamid Karzai government in Kabul. Baradar was freed by Pakistan in 2018 and became the head of the Taliban office in Doha.

India is the largest regional contributor to Afghanistan’s reconstruction and development efforts with pledges of $3 billion but has lagged behind other regional players such as Russia, China and Iran in establishing contacts with the Taliban, largely because of the group’s long-standing links with the Pakistani military establishment. However, the perception that the Taliban is no longer a monolithic organisation and some factions may not be completely under the sway of Pakistani generals has gained ground in recent years.

“We have tried the earlier option of not engaging the Taliban and putting all our efforts into the Northern Alliance,” said a second person, referring to the united front created by Tajiks and other ethnic groups that was backed by India, Russia and Iran in its campaign against the former Taliban regime in the late 1990s.

“But there has been a huge shift since then and there are some who think it might be better to have a line of communication with some Taliban leaders,” the second person said. The people made it very clear that India’s outreach didn’t include the Haqqani Network or members of the Quetta Shura, who are seen as proxies of the Pakistani military.

There was no formal response from the external affairs ministry on these developments.

The people made it clear the outreach to Taliban leaders was proceeding in parallel with New Delhi’s engagement with different segments of the Afghan leadership, including President Ashraf Ghani’s government and key leaders such as former president Hamid Karzai and Abdullah Abdullah, the head of the High Council for National Reconciliation.

A visit to Kabul last month by joint secretary JP Singh, the external affairs ministry’s point person for Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran, was part of the continuing engagement with Afghan leaders. “Singh engaged with various groups and made an assessment of the situation on the ground and got a first-hand sense of things,” the first person cited above said.

The people also said sharp differences remained between India’s position on matters such as preserving the gains made in Afghanistan under a democratic system, including the rights of women and minorities, and the Taliban’s insistence on establishing an Islamic emirate. “However, it appears that some Taliban leaders realise that there will need to be some accommodation of India’s role in Afghanistan and such an understanding will also fit in with the Taliban’s efforts to project themselves as a group that the West can work with,” a third person said.

As the latest report by a monitoring committee of the UN Security Council pointed out, the Taliban hasn’t cut its ties with al-Qaeda or foreign groups such as the Haqqani Network, and this continues to be a worry in New Delhi. However, the feeling in the Indian capital is that things are better now than last year, when it appeared that India had very little say in the Afghan peace process driven by the Trump administration.

“There are worries about the pace of the US withdrawal and the general feeling is that it will be completed well before the September 2021 deadline. But the position isn’t as hopeless as last year when it seemed as if India was being kept out of all the crucial discussions,” the third person said.

Sameer Patil, fellow for international security studies at Gateway House, said there continues to be a lot of uncertainty about how the situation in Afghanistan will pan out after the withdrawal of US troops. “But what’s certain is civil war and a Taliban takeover of Kabul in months, if not weeks, without a political settlement. Therefore, it appears India is moving to protect its interests by opening a dialogue with the Taliban,” he said.

“Moreover, by shedding its traditional reluctance to talk to the Taliban, India is maintaining its relevance in the Afghan peace process. This is the only way by which India can reduce the adverse impact of a deterioration in Afghanistan’s security situation,” Patil said.